The driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet finished third at Chicagoland, falling from the lead after a late-race caution for debris.
Kurt Busch knew it was probably too good to be true.
After 37 laps and establishing a four-second lead over Jeff Gordon with nine laps remaining in Sunday’s Chase for the Sprint Cup opener at Chicagoland Speedway, NASCAR called the sixth and final caution in the myAFibRisk.com 400.
Crew chief Tony Gibson asked his Busch what he thought about staying out on the track rather than pitting.
“Oh my god,” the driver said.
Still, considering how solid the No. 41 Haas Automation Chevy when the day began, Busch certainly had the confidence to accomplish the task. After starting the race ninth, Busch moved into the top five by Lap 45. As Busch searched for the fastest lane on the 1.5-mile, he brushed the Turn 2 wall around Lap 60, but it didn’t slow him down.
On Lap 85, however, Busch slapped the wall again with enough force to cut his right rear tire. After he limped to the pits, the crew repaired the No. 41 Chevy and Busch restarted 28th. Over the next 15 laps, he passed the cars of fellow Chasers Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin then closed in on Carl Edwards for 22nd.
We weren’t given a hall pass now, through Loudon and through Dover. We’ve just got to work hard as a team and saddle-up
As green flag pit stops began, Busch worked his way back up into the top 10. By the second caution on Lap 123 — and once the pit stops had cycled out — Busch was 10th. He stayed on the track when five of the lead cars pitted six laps later and on the restart, moved from ninth to fifth in two laps. After his SHR teammate Kevin Harvick hit the wall on Lap 138, Busch moved into third for the restart and a battle ensued between his brother Kyle and Jeff Gordon.
Busch led for the first time on Lap 184 during pit stops. He lined up alongside the No. 18 for the Lap 197 restarts and finally passed his brother 24 circuits later. After 19 laps with the lead, Busch relinquished the point Hamlin following his final pit stop on Lap 240 but regained the position five laps later.
As the laps wound down and Busch appeared destined to win the first race of the Chase, the yellow flag waved.
Spotter Rick Carelli tried to deflect the situation by telling his driver, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing this, right Kurt?”
Busch lined up for a five-lap dash for the finish, but he couldn't hold off Hamlin in the end.
“We had a good race car, great driver, great team, did a good job, led a bunch of laps,” crew chief Tony Gibson told the crew following the race. “Good job, top-five buddy.”
“I appreciate you guys helping me get through that mistake I made,” Busch replied. “It was a team effort.”
“Right here is what we have to do to win this championship,” Gibson said. “Be strong and stay steady. It was a good day everybody.”
For his effort, Busch finished third — his best result at Chicagoland Speedway and his third consecutive top 10 finish at the track. Busch gained two positions in the standings and is currently the fifth.
Following his run, Busch acknowledged that the caution “was the difference-maker today”.
“But overall, I’m really proud of this team and everybody at Haas Automation and Stewart Haas Racing,” Busch said. “This Chevy was fast. It was fast enough to win. When the caution came out there at the end, I thought we had the right strategy, but we didn’t.
“But this is a point’s day. This is a long journey through these next 10 weeks. We weren’t given a hall pass now, through Loudon and through Dover. We’ve just got to work hard as a team and saddle-up. This isn’t just a win and take a couple of weeks off, but we had a winning car today. It’s kind of a shame. We had a good run at Fontana earlier this year and it kind of ended up the same way.”